The government laid out its plans for a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which enables people to access funding for higher and further education throughout their lives, and a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, aimed at strengthening academic freedom and free speech in universities in England. The Queen's Speech also covers the introduction of the Turing Scheme as a replacement for the UK's participation in the EU's Erasmus+ programme and a bill which creates an Advanced Research and Invention Agency.
- A Lifelong Loan Entitlement, introduced under the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, gives individuals access to up to four years’ worth of student loans for level 4-6 qualifications that they can use across their lifetime, at colleges and universities (p51)
- It will enable people to access flexible funding and is aimed at bringing universities and FE colleges closer together, and removing any bias against technical education (p50)
- The Bill will also “strengthen the powers of the Office for Students to take action to address low quality higher education provision” and allow it to “regulate in line with minimum expectations of quality” (p51)
- Various mechanisms to put the needs of employers at the centre of provision are outlined, so people can be trained to fill skills gaps in sectors the economy needs, including construction, digital, clean energy and manufacturing (p51)
- A £110 million, UK-wide Turing Scheme will give opportunities for young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to work and study across the world. In its first year, it will support around 35,000 participants in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges. The scheme, intended as a replacement for the UK’s participation in the EU’s Horizon+ programme, will provide living cost grants of £335 - £380 per month plus a disadvantaged supplement of £110 per month (p79)
- The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is aimed at ensuring “freedom of speech can thrive for all staff, students and visiting speakers” and that “academic staff feel safe to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without being at risk of losing their jobs, privileges or promotion”. It also gives the OfS powers to impose fines for breaches (143)
- For the first time, students’ unions at universities will have to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for their members and others, including visiting speakers (p143)
- A new role of Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students will be created, to champion freedom of speech and investigate infringements (p143)
- Individuals will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of breach of the freedom of speech duties (p143)
- The government reiterates its commitment to making the UK a “global superpower” with a “world leading research and development environment, and promises a new Innovation Strategy in the summer. The life sciences sector is singled out as warranting special attention and development. (P53-56)
- An Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), funded by £800 million by 2024-25, will focus on funding high risk, high-reward research and development. It will explicitly tolerate failure in pursuing ambitious research and be at arm’s length from Government, with limited information and direction rights for the Secretary of State (p43)
Implications for governance
Two of the main Bills outlined in the Queen Speech are directly related to university business and have implications for governance.
By setting out a commitment to provide a Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill has the potential to boost the number of mature students entering higher education and elevate the status of applied and vocational courses. Relationships with employers and further education colleges will be a key part of institutions’ ability to take full advantage of the developments, as will the ability to provide flexible and blended provision.
Another aspect of this Bill with particular significance to HE, although brief in its mention, is the strengthening of OfS powers to “take action to address low quality higher education provision”.
It follows the November 2020 Regulating Quality and Standards in Higher Education consultation, which outlined a variety of proposals for what minimum standards might look like. According to the OfS it is currently analysing the responses and plans to publish a second consultation shortly setting out proposals in more detail.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has potential ramifications for a number of areas of business, including HR, student union relations, and reputation, and has led to a significant amount of disquiet and criticism across the sector.
The OfS has been given a new power to fine universities for 'failing' to protect freedom of speech. The Bill also bestows groups and individuals with the right to seek redress from universities or student unions if they are disciplined, disinvited or 'no-platformed' because of their views. Reports have pointed to a potential “legal minefield” here and questions have been raised about whether Student Unions, which are regulated by the Charity Commission, are answerable to the OfS at all.
With the creation of an OfS role to “investigate infringements” and the threat of sanctions, governing bodies may feel it is a good time to review how they currently promote and protect academic freedom and free speech (if they haven’t already done so) and assess whether their policies and procedures are robust enough to uphold the duties outlined in the new Bill.
On a more positive note, both the government rhetoric and financial commitments around research, development and innovation are encouraging for the sector, and governors at institutions involved in life sciences research appear to have good reason to expect promising developments. Governors should also note the forthcoming Innovation Strategy to be published by BEIS in the summer "to inspire, facilitate and unleash innovation across the UK".
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